I've woken up each day this weekend to the unexpected passing of a celebrity.
Gary Coleman, best known for playing Arnold Jackson on television series Diff'rent Strokes (1978–1986), passed away on Friday at the age of 42. Despite the fame he achieved in that early role, fortune did not come easily to Mr. Coleman. Nephritis, a condition of the kidney, both stunted his growth and led to several transplants, his first when he was just five. After Strokes' finale, he found that the fortune he should've amassed had been squandered by his adoptive parents. An inability to find work beyond cameos spoofing himself (such as in Norm MacDonald's Dirty Work) led him down unexpected paths — some honorable (working as a security guard; running for governor of California), some not (assault charges, car accidents, suicide attempts). Mr. Coleman became a running joke, even appearing as a main character in the Broadway musical Avenue Q. Finally, an accident at his home in Utah this past Wednesday led to brain hemorrhaging from which he never recovered.
Just a day later, it was announced that Dennis Hopper (with whom Gary Coleman worked in the 2008 comedy An American Carol) had died at the age of 74 from prostate cancer. A veteran of the industry, Mr. Hopper had been appearing in television and films since 1954 in everything from classics such as Easy Rider, Cool Hand Luke, Speed, and Blue Velvet to bombs like Super Mario Bros. and Waterworld.
I think one reason these deaths come as a surprise is the same reason that actors achieve immortality: they are remembered in their prime for their appearances in the films that made them famous. People who think of Gary Coleman still see a child actor, and Dennis Hopper is still thought of for being in Easy Rider at the age of 33. We don't see them aging off-screen and battling the same debilitating health we all face.
I don't know if it is an honor or an injustice to see them this way. Perhaps the best we can do is to know that they will be missed.